By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Mar. 17, 2004
Michael’s Eighth Avenue, the Glen Burnie catering hall, is famous for drawing thirsty crowds to such earthy attractions as its regular “Ballroom Boxing” night, a sweaty mix of bouts, babes, and beer. On the afternoon Saturday, Feb. 21, though, it hosted a decidedly more devout affair: the announcement that Michael Anthony Peroutka, a Pasadena attorney, is seeking the 2004 presidential nomination of the 12-year-old arch-conservative Constitution Party. The party has secured a spot on November’s ballot in a dozen states so far, though not in Maryland, and Peroutka won nearly 25,000 votes in California’s March 2 primary.
Peroutka, with his brother Stephen G. Peroutka, runs the debt-collections law firm Peroutka and Peroutka, as well as the firm’s educational-outreach arm, the Institute on the Constitution, which sells 12-week seminar kits about the biblical perspective on the U.S. Constitution for $145. If he is voted the party’s nominee at its late-June convention in Valley Forge, Pa., the history books say he’ll be the first third-party presidential candidate from Maryland on general election ballots since Joshua Levering of the Prohibition Party in 1896.
“If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Peroutka rhetorically asked the Michael’s Eighth Avenue gathering of about 300 faithful, his dark suit and well-groomed sandy-gray hair lending a sensible air to his fundamentalist zeal. “We must not flee to the mountains,” he answered, citing a verse from Psalms, but instead “stand and fight” and “rebuild the foundations,” as did King David in the Old Testament.
“This is not a time for despair and discouragement,” he railed. “This is a time for discernment and decisive action! . . . This is why I am seeking the presidential nomination of the Constitution Party. I want, with your help, to call this country back to its original, godly constitutional greatness!”
Peroutka, like the Constitution Party itself, toes a well-defined line when it comes to matters of dogma. As his 20-minute speech made clear, he believes that the federal government routinely ignores the dictates of the U.S. Constitution, which he contends is a biblically grounded document written by divinely inspired Founding Fathers. Chronic, long-term erosion of these godly constitutional foundations, he believes, is advancing society’s moral decay, a trend made especially evident in what he calls “attacks” on the family, such as abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage. The task for Peroutka and the Constitution Party, he says, is to fight the forces of decay and to present a loud, growing, and unwavering political voice to challenge the major parties. Taking jabs at President George W. Bush for his “failure to lead” on abortion, his “reckless” government spending, and his “unconstitutional” war on Iraq is a current staple of Constitution Party oratory.
“People may say, ‘Don’t you know you can’t win, don’t have a chance?'” Peroutka declared earnestly from Michael’s balloon-adorned stage. “But I just don’t believe in chance. I believe in divine providence. . . . With God, all things are possible.”
“The themes of our campaign are God, family, republic,” he continued. “In short, we are called to honor the sovereignty of God, defend the American family, and restore the American republic. The God of the Bible must be first because–well, because He says so.”
After God, Peroutka continued, comes family–an issue of central importance to the Peroutka campaign and the Constitution Party as a whole. Before Peroutka’s speech, party luminary William Shearer, a lapsed Republican who founded late presidential candidate and Alabama governor George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968, had praised the Peroutkas for having “created that thing which we stand for as a party–the family.” Shearer admired the couple’s “three lovely children”–Beth, Patrick, and Timothy, all teenagers, who took the stage with their father and mother. Spear Lancaster, the 2002 Libertarian Party candidate for Maryland’s governorship, was there and commented afterward that the Peroutkas “seem like the archetypal Christian-type family”–an image that is reinforced by a family portrait on the Peroutka’s campaign Web site.
So, up on the stage, Peroutka put particular emphasis on family issues. Whereas government exists simply and exclusively to “secure and protect God-given rights” of citizens, he said, most politicians fail to comprehend this, suggesting instead that government exists for a myriad of other, extraneous reasons: “to create a level playing field” in society, or “to maintain the infrastructure,” or “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.”
Or to “take care of the children of the state,” Peroutka added. He then paused as Albion Knight, a retired U.S. Army general and conservative radio commentator from Gaithersburg who was sitting in the audience after having made an earlier speech, suddenly shouted, “Not mine!” Approving chuckles rippled across the room.
“We love that one, don’t we?” Peroutka continued, remarking sarcastically that “I didn’t know the state had any children.”
The crowd was audibly amused. The reaction, though, may have been different had it been known that in the early 1990s Peroutka and his wife, Diane, forced her two teenaged daughters from an earlier marriage–Dawn and Holly Hubbard–to become wards of the state foster-care system until the age of 18. (Diane Peroutka’s previous husband died of cancer in 1978.) This happened after Dawn told members of her Catholic youth group and her basketball coach at McDonogh School that she recalled sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Peroutka from when she was 9–memories that were not substantiated in an ensuing state investigation, and which she later recanted. And it happened after Holly, who suffered from learning disabilities and a troubled relationship with her stepfather, displayed behavioral problems.
The Peroutkas transferred parental responsibilities for Dawn Hubbard to the State of Maryland on her 17th birthday, May 1, 1992, and Holly met the same fate on the day after Thanksgiving 1992, when she was 15. The sisters, now in their late 20s and living outside of Maryland, say they never wanted to be estranged from their mother and have tried without success to reconcile with her several times since being removed from the Peroutka household more than a decade ago.
Many of these facts were uncovered when a cursory Google search led to a 1997 Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion that rejected Michael and Diane Peroutka’s libel claims against Dawn and Holly Hubbard’s state social worker, Marsha Streng. The alleged defamatory statement was made by Streng in her Towson office on Jan. 12, 1995, when Diane Peroutka showed up, Dawn Hubbard in tow, and angrily and repeatedly demanded to know whether Streng thought she was an emotionally abused spouse. Diane Peroutka had been moved to confront Streng when, during a conciliatory lunch with Dawn Hubbard earlier that day in Towson, she saw that her daughter had an informational packet about emotional abuse that Streng had mailed her daughter, then in college and majoring in psychology. Confronted by Diane Peroutka, Streng at first repeatedly refused to answer the question, but ultimately said yes. Diane Peroutka told her husband what Streng had said, and Dawn Hubbard told Holly about it as well. Nine months later, in October 1995, the couple sued Streng for libel.
The libel case was rejected at the first opportunity by the Baltimore County Circuit Court a year later, when the judge held that Streng’s statement was “an opinion . . . given at specific request to give an opinion. That cannot constitute defamation.” The Peroutkas appealed, and lost again. The appellate court opinion, filed in June 1997, said that “because all the persons who received the alleged defamatory statement knew the underlying facts of the conflicts within this family . . . Streng is not subject to liability, although, as with any opinion, [the Peroutkas are] free to disagree. We hold that the statement . . . was not defamatory.” The court also ordered the Peroutkas to pay the state’s costs for the year and a half it spent defending Streng from the claims.
Since Streng’s statement was about the Peroutkas’ family life, by suing her they opened up their family history to public examination via documents, affidavits, and depositions gathered for Peroutka v. Streng. According to those case records, on May 13, 1992, two weeks after the Peroutkas placed Dawn Hubbard in state custody, Michael Peroutka petitioned for a court order barring Dawn from having any further contact with the Peroutka family or from approaching their Baltimore County townhouse. When Dawn’s state-appointed lawyer, Anna Davis, successfully warded off the attempted restraining order by arguing that Michael Peroutka had no standing to petition the court because he had never adopted Dawn and was not her natural father, he filed an amended petition, this time with his wife, and won.
Dawn Hubbard, once in the hands of the state, had to rely on Social Security for financial support. At first, her checks were sent to the Peroutkas’ home, and Streng, in late June 1992, sent Diane Peroutka a letter asking for them. Diane Peroutka responded in writing that the money was used to pay bills, especially attorneys fees, “which have escalated far beyond the income I received for Dawn. . . . This expense was accrued because of the lies and problems caused by Dawn, and her Social Security check must pay for this.”
In the summer of that year, the case record reflects that Diane Peroutka, with her husband’s help and guidance, launched a letter-writing campaign. She sent approximately 1,000 letters to anyone who may have heard about Dawn Hubbard’s sexual abuse allegations–the Peroutkas’ friends and neighbors, for instance, as well as parents and neighbors of Dawn’s schoolmates–alerting them to her daughter’s mental and emotional condition and implying that her daughter might pose a threat to the community. That fall, when Dawn was hospitalized for a severe eating disorder, neither of her parents visited her.
The following spring, as she was being treated by Johns Hopkins Medical psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh, Dawn Hubbard began to doubt the veracity of her memories of sexual abuse. By the fall of 1993, she was convinced they weren’t real, but the result of a phenomenon known as false-memory syndrome. When Dawn attempted to deliver a letter to that effect to her parents, Diane Peroutka had her arrested for trespassing; Diane Peroutka had tried to do the same to to a visiting Holly Hubbard in June 1993, but the police wouldn’t charge Holly. Shortly thereafter, Dawn appeared on the Phil Donohue Show with representatives from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and recanted her sexual abuse allegations to a national television audience. Still, the Peroutkas have rebuffed Dawn and Holly Hubbard’s subsequent attempts at reconciliation.
The family crisis, while quieted since the libel suit ended in 1997, is still unresolved. Dawn Hubbard, now 28 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bucknell University, works as a guidance counselor for female minors in the Pennsylvania correctional system. She explained when contacted recently that she and her sister, now a waitress living in Connecticut who is preparing for her August wedding, remain estranged from the Peroutkas.
Holly Hubbard submitted affidavits in Peroutka v. Streng that reflect the emotional toll exacted by her experiences with Michael Peroutka, who she believed controlled Diane Peroutka’s actions toward her daughters and forced his wife to end relationships with her family and friends from before their marriage. In the sworn statements, Holly recalled “several occasions when my stepfather would mash my face into the floor, sit on me to restrain me, push me against a wall, and pull my hair while demanding that I call myself a ‘slut.'” “I believe,” Holly continued, “that when my mother put me in foster care and refused to visit me or talk to me, it was because of pressure from my stepfather.”
In the past, Michael Peroutka has sidestepped any personal responsibility for the couple’s handling of Diane’s stepdaughters, whom he never legally adopted. “Certainly I discussed it with my wife, but it wasn’t my decision to make,” he explained in a 1996 deposition. “They were her daughters.”
A decidedly different take on Michael Peroutka’s role in his stepdaughters’ treatment was expressed by McHugh, the psychiatrist who helped Dawn Hubbard determine that her memories were false and the only doctor with whom the Peroutkas agreed to consult with during Dawn’s care at Hopkins. In a 1996 affidavit, McHugh stated that in his opinion Diane Peroutka “has been subjected to excessive emotional pressure by her husband to act in ways she otherwise would not act . . . contrary to her own best interests and those of her daughters.”
In a 1993 telephone conversation with the Hubbard sisters’ attorney, Anna Davis, case records show, McHugh was even more condemning, saying he was “disgusted by the Peroutkas’ behavior,” particularly that of Michael Peroutka, whom he described as “brutish.” “The truth will come out,” McHugh is recorded as saying. “It always does.”
In an e-mail response to written questions provided by City Paper, Peroutka maintains that the family turmoil as Dawn and Holly Hubbard were forced out of the house “was exasperated by the prejudicial attitude and professional incompetence of certain employees of our local social services department. I joined my wife in filing a lawsuit for defamation against one of the social workers that we believed acted with intent to harm our reputations and our family relationships. All of this was long ago.
“I fully support and appreciate my wife’s decisions and actions during that most difficult time, and ever since. Her desire to protect and defend our family, and to restore her troubled children, is fully shared by me. We have both, long ago, forgiven her daughters and others who, we believed, sought to harm them and us, and we pray and hope for their restoration.”
The traditional family values, limited-government platform of Michael Peroutka and the Constitution Party appears to clash headlong with the reality that he stood by, and possibly encouraged, his wife as she forced her daughters out of their home and transferred parental responsibilities for them to Maryland’s social services bureaucracy–an entity whose very existence is questionable under Constitution Party doctrine about the role of government. “Parents have the fundamental right and responsibility to nurture, educate, and discipline their children,” the party’s platform states. “Assumption of any of these responsibilities by any governmental agency usurps the role of the parents.”
Meanwhile, the libel case record of Peroutka’s alleged abusive behavior toward his wife and stepdaughters seems to flout the Constitution Party’s platform on “Character and Moral Conduct,” which states that “our party leaders and public officials must display exemplary qualities of . . . moral uprightness . . . self-restraint . . . kindness, and compassion. If they cannot be trusted in private life, neither can they be trusted in public life.”
“I don’t believe that my personal views diverge from the Constitution Party’s platform or mission,” reads Peroutka’s e-mailed response to a question about these apparent inconsistencies. “As a believer in the Lordship of Christ I know that there is a fixed and eternal standard of right and wrong and that I am a fallible, fallen creature who falls short every day. Alone, I am not capable of ‘reconciling’ any chapter, or moment of my life. I believe that it is through the saving work of Christ that we are reconciled to Him and each other.”
Peroutka’s potential image problems as a candidate for the nation’s top elected office don’t end with his home life, though. There’s also the matter of his legally questionable political donations over the past few years.
The issue first surfaced on Oct. 6, 2003, when the public interest group Common Cause Maryland issued a report on political donors from Anne Arundel County who illegally exceeded the state limits on political contributions: no more than $4,000 to any one campaign committee and no more than $10,000 overall from any given contributor during a four-year reporting cycle. Peroutka was one of four individuals, and his firm one of 10 businesses, that had given more than the limits, Common Cause reported.
Shortly after Common Cause released its report, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli’s office opened a criminal investigation. The prosecutor opted not to bring charges against Michael Peroutka or its firm. “They brought themselves into compliance,” senior assistant state prosecutor Steven Trostle explained to City Paper, adding that on Dec. 8 he sent them letters closing the case and “warning them” that more violations would be treated more seriously.
In order to come into compliance, Peroutka and his firm relied on the good graces of the Maryland Constitution Party, which on Nov. 17, according to state campaign finance records, returned $3,230 of the $3,500 Michael Peroutka had given the party, and $2,200 of the $2,500 Peroutka and Peroutka had contributed. These transactions brought the total amount Peroutka and his firm had contributed to all state campaign committees to below the $10,000 limit. Though several other campaign committees–those of state senators Alex Mooney (R-3rd District) and Andrew Harris (R-7) and state delegates Emmett Burns (D-10) and Carmen Armedori (R-5A)–had also received substantial financial support from Peroutka and his law firm, only the Maryland Constitution Party returned contributions to make things right again under the law for them.
Montanarelli may have more in store for Michael Peroutka on the campaign finance front. On Aug. 22, 2002, Michael and Diane Peroutka’s three children, then between the ages of 11 and 15, donated $4,000 each to the campaign of state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-34), one of the state GOP’s staunchest conservatives, who at the time was facing a tough race in her Harford County district. “It’s never come up before,” Montanarelli said recently of the scenario. “But I have a problem with that one. You can’t evade the donation limits by having children making donations. It would probably be a violation, and we could probably prove that it came from their parent or parents.”
Asked by e-mail whether the money his children donated was theirs, whether or not he gave the money to them, and whether or not he prompted them to make the donations, Michael Peroutka responded, “I am confident that my children followed the law.”
Public records reveal another foible of a sort that has proved thorny for politicians in the past. In December 1991, Michael Peroutka was caught driving with an illegally high concentration of alcohol in his system. The result: probation before judgment and a month of restricted driving privileges. When asked if the episode was in any way inconsistent with the Constitution Party’s platform, which calls for its leaders to practice “temperance,” Peroutka gave the same answer as that regarding his relationship with his stepdaughters–that he is “fallible,” and that reconciliation of his personal behavior with party doctrine can only be accomplished “through the saving work of Christ.”
The evolution of Michael Peroutka from a dozen years ago, when he was struggling with his stepdaughters and living in a townhouse, into a prominent arch-conservative politician with a house on a half-acre in Millersville’s Brittingham development, a property assessed at $580,000, is a hard subject to nail down. But the changes have been marked.
Perhaps the most fundamental change in Peroutka is the fact that he is no longer with the Roman Catholic Church. The Peroutka v. Streng libel case records indicate that Catholicism was once a central part of his life. Many of Dawn Hubbard’s conflicts with her stepfather had been over religion, her 1996 deposition revealed, including a “confrontational problem” over her resistance to becoming a confirmed Catholic, a church ceremony to which she ultimately submitted after Peroutka “chastised” her. Since then, though, he joined the Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church, which worships at a Seventh-day Adventist facility in Pasadena.
Like many fundamentalist churches, the Free Evangelical Church of America, of which Cornerstone is a part, is known for its strict prohibitive stances on abortion and homosexuality and for its very literal reading of the Bible. And Cornerstone’s ties to politics are strong. The state Constitution Party’s Web site promotes Cornerstone as a “Constitutionally aware church” and provides a link to the church’s Web site. Cornerstone’s pastor, David Whitney, ran unsuccessfully in 2002 for Republican State Central Committee in Maryland’s 30th District and is also a donor to the state Constitution Party. Prior to running for public office, he had become locally renowned for helping to organize anti-abortion protests, replete with a woman in a Grim Reaper costume and poster-sized pictures of aborted fetuses, in front of a clinic on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park that provides abortion services.
Whitney also edits and writes for the monthly newsletter of the Peroutkas’ Institute on the Constitution, for which he penned a lengthy treatise titled “The Most Misused and Abused Amendment of the Constitution,” denouncing the U.S. government’s application of the 14th Amendment, which ended slavery and codified the principles of due process and equal protection under the law.
Alongside Peroutka’s evolving beliefs has come greater wealth. Peroutka and Peroutka’s Anne Arundel County personal property tax payments, records of which are available on the state’s online database, indicates that the law firm has been growing fast. In 1995, Peroutka and Peroutka owed $6,300 in such taxes, which are levied on a business’ furniture, equipment, inventory, and the like. By 2003, the amount had increased to $180,000.
Another indication of Peroutka’s improved cash flow is the amount he has invested in politics. Since 1999, Peroutka has given nearly $80,000 to Maryland and federal campaign committees. Much of it–nearly $55,000–went to federal Constitution Party accounts, with the rest allotted to various local and national politicians from both the Republican and Constitution parties. In addition, during the same time frame Peroutka and Peroutka gave $15,000, and Stephen Peroutka gave $50,000, to Maryland and federal campaign committees, $36,000 of it to the Constitution Party National Committee. Diane Peroutka, too, chipped in just over $5,000, $2,500 of it to the anti-gay-rights activist group Take Back Maryland. In all, the three Peroutkas and the firm have given about $150,000 to political campaigns since 1999. And that amount doesn’t include the $12,000 the three Peroutka children gave to Nancy Jacobs’ re-election effort in 2002. Nor does it take into account the $87,000 the Peroutka brothers and their firm spent underwriting a 2002 television and print advertising campaign urging Maryland voters to “vote pro-life.”
To put these sums in perspective, the Peroutkas are nowhere near Peter Angelos’ league–the Orioles owner and super-lawyer has made just over $3 million in federal-level donations since 1997–but surpass Baltimore bakery magnate and real-estate developer John Paterakis, who has given just shy of $35,000 to federal campaign accounts since 1997.
Asked about the origins of his wealth and consequent ability to make large political donations, Peroutka writes, “I am thankful to God from whom all blessings flow.”
Peroutka’s earliest political investment speaks volumes of where he was heading: into a tightly knit world of right-wing political activity on the outer edge of the Republican Party and, ultimately, a very small circle of rainmaking Constitution Party backers.
On the federal level, Peroutka’s first recorded donation was on Oct. 15, 1999, when $250 sent from his Ritchie Highway office–it was entered in the ledger-books as having come from “Peroutka P.A.”–arrived in Katy, Texas, where it landed in the short-lived and little-used bank account of the Draft Steve Stockman for Congress Committee. “I vaguely remember this donation,” Peroutka explains in his e-mail, “but do not remember what prompted it.”
Stockman, an accountant and former one-term Republican congressman who lost a bid for re-election in 1996, was known for his defense of the militia movement and his adamant pro-gun stance. In the fall of 1999, after having lost a bid for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission a year earlier, Stockman was working as a highly paid consultant, earning $250,000 in fees advising the congressional campaign of Texas Republican Mark Brewer, who lost the following spring’s primary. But Peroutka and a small group of like-minded Stockman supporters were hoping to draw Stockman back into running for federal office again.
Other than Peroutka, 15 individuals from around the country donated $7,000 in itemized contributions (an equal amount was collected in small, unitemized amounts) to the draft-Stockman campaign based in Katy, which raised funds only for a single month in the fall of 1999. (A defining moment for Katy, population 10,000, came the following summer, when seven local men held a cross-burning on the property of one of the town’s few black families, and were subsequently convicted of federal hate crimes.) Among Peroutka’s co-donors to the low-profile campaign were three individuals whose backgrounds place them on the extreme edge of conservative politics–a place where Peroutka, nearly five years later, is now established as a leader and benefactor.
Joining Peroutka in the draft-Stockman campaign was James R. Lightner, a wealthy Dallas businessman who in the spring of 2000 joined an elite club of about 100 people who contributed to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s flash-in-the-pan stab at an open congressional seat in Louisiana. Another name on the list of contributors was Chris Cupit, a right-wing political functionary from Louisiana who gained notoriety as a partner in GOP Marketplace, a Virginia-based consulting firm that was caught undermining Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts in New Hampshire on Election Day 2002 by subcontracting with an Idaho phone-calling firm to jam the Democrats’ phone-bank lines with continuous hang-ups. Also on the list was Robert G. Wheaton of San Antonio, who in 1995 was elected to the seven-member Committee of Safety of the Southern Region of the Texas Constitutional Militia, one of Texas’ two main militia organizations. (According to the Austin-based pro-militia Constitution Society, the Texas Constitutional Militia ‘s Committee of Safety is “no longer operative.”)
Lightner and Cupit are both active in GOP causes, and Wheaton is a regular contributor to the Libertarian Party. But all three, by virtue of their political activities, are iconoclasts outside the political mainstream, a fact that seems to drive their zeal–and open their wallets–for fundamental cultural change. The Constitution Party has been calling for such change since its founding in 1992, when it picked up what was left of the George Wallace movement–the American Independent Party and its various offshoots–to form what was originally known as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. And Peroutka, with his deep pockets and apparently growing doctrinal zeal, fits in quite well.
Now that he’s the party’s presumed presidential hope, Peroutka has started to answer candidate questionnaires, such as the one at vote-smart.org, that give an idea of his stands on the issues, such as:
· Eliminate all taxes except tariffs on imports, which should be slightly increased.
· Eliminate all federal government funding for everything except defense, whose budget should be maintained at current levels–except for one item, a national missile defense, whose funding should be greatly increased.
· Except under special circumstances, expel all illegal aliens and place a moratorium on immigration.
· End all government aid to foreign interests, be it other countries or international organizations.
Getting in a position to make such fundamental changes to the federal government requires money. The Constitution Party National Committee’s cash on hand, as most recently reported on Jan. 31, is a little more than $8,200–barely enough to throw a decent bull roast–while Peroutka 2004, the presidential campaign committee, has nearly $22,000 on hand. The fact that either outfit has any cash at all, though, is thanks mostly to a small group of big donors, including Peroutka himself, who has chipped in nearly $57,000 to the national committee since 2000, and has lent $40,000 to his own presidential campaign committee. Only two other individuals have given more than $50,000 to the party’s federal accounts: the chairman of the Constitution Party National Committee, Jim Clymer, and a retiree from Dallas, Julie Lauer-Leonardi, who’s the party’s most prodigious benefactor, having given more than $80,000.
Lauer-Leonardi and Lightner are among dozens of conservative activists who sit on the leadership council of the Conservative Caucus, a 30-year-old Vienna, Va.-based political organization whose founder and chairman is Howard Phillips, a former Nixon administration official who has been the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate in the last three elections, and who helped found it in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. (The party changed to its current name when it was trying in 1999 to woo Patrick Buchanan to be its presidential candidate.) Phillips is backing Peroutka and gave a rousing pro-Peroutka speech at the candidate’s announcement ceremony at Michael’s Eighth Avenue.
Lauer-Leonardi may be the biggest individual donor to the Constitution Party, but Peroutka, if you add to his contributions those made by his brother and wife, comes out on top: All together, they’ve given more than $95,000 to the party. As Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and a close observer of U.S. third-party politics, says, “Peroutka really wants to be the party’s candidate for president.”
Only 307 Marylanders were registered as Constitution Party voters in March 2003, the last time the state board of elections did a head count before the party lost its status as a recognized party here because it didn’t garner enough votes in the 2002 state elections. Howard Phillips garnered sparse support from Maryland voters in his three presidential bids: 919 in 2000, 3,402 in 1996, and 22 in 1992. Nonetheless, Maryland has a special place in the Constitution Party’s heart. After all, the Free State backed the Constitution Party’s ancestor, George Wallace, in the 1964 presidential primary, and handed him nearly 180,000 votes in the 1968 general election.
A number of key Constitution Party players are based in or around Maryland. Clymer, the party’s chairman, is a lawyer in nearby Lancaster County, Pa. Phillips’ Conservative Caucus is based in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Radio commentator and Constitution Party donor Albion Knight only had a short commute from his Gaithersburg home to give his homily at the Peroutka announcement. And Peroutka 2004’s $800-a-week communications director, John Lofton, a fixture of hard-right journalism since the rise of Ronald Reagan, lives in Laurel. The Save-a-Patriot Foundation, an anti-government, anti-tax organization based in Hagerstown, is scheduled to have Peroutka address one of its weekly Saturday-night gatherings in April. Two Maryland pastors–Cornerstone’s David Whitney and Michael Chastain of Christ Presbyterian Church in Elkton, who gave the prayer at Peroutka’s announcement–have emerged as important religious voices for the Constitution Party’s doctrines.
And, of course, Peroutka is a native Marylander, born in Baltimore in 1953. He and his brother Stephen Peroutka gave their first big donations to the Constitution Party National Committee–a combined sum of $30,000–between June and August of 2000. The Peroutka brothers’ Institute on the Constitution has caught on, and its Web site is a commonly encountered link on far-right political and religious Web sites. Michael and Stephen Peroutka both take their messages to the airwaves on local Christian radio stations.
More than 300 people came to Peroutka’s Feb. 21 event in Glen Burnie–a much better turnout than the 50 or so people who attended Ralph Nader’s August 2000 announcement in Annapolis that he would be the Green Party’s presidential candidate that year. Onstage at Michael’s Eighth Avenue, Michael Peroutka mentioned another manifestation of the party’s local influence when he thanked “members of the General Assembly here present” for coming to the event. Freshman state Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-31) was there, but City Paper was unable to spot any other elected officials celebrating Peroutka’s announcement. Spear Lancaster said later that state Republicans whose campaigns Peroutka has supported financially “don’t want to be seen at another party’s event.” In his e-mail, Peroutka said that he had “sent notes to a few of my friends in the General Assembly and wanted to make sure I welcomed any who might have come. So I used the plural. I cannot remember seeing other Delegates except for my good friend Don Dwyer.”
Dwyer has teamed up with Peroutka, who put $4,000 in the delegate’s campaign kitty last May, in other ways recently. As reported by Dwyer in a Feb. 16 letter posted on the Institute on the Constitution’s Web site, the two joined other conservative luminaries–Howard Phillips, Alan Keyes, and Phyllis Schlafley among them–on a two-day visit in February to impeached Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Judge Roy Moore, who lost his job last fall after refusing to remove a sculpture of the Ten Commandments from his courthouse. And Dwyer told The Sun in a Feb. 3 article that he decided to run for delegate in 2002, his first bid for public office, after attending an Institute on the Constitution seminar. Ever since he arrived in Annapolis in 2003, he’s been rustling feathers–even yanking them on occasion by, for instance, suing the leader of the Anne Arundel legislative delegation over rule changes and questioning the patriotism of fellow lawmakers.
Peroutka’s budding influence in Annapolis and among some Christian Right Marylanders, along with his fund-raising ties to national far-right leaders, suggests he’s got some traction as a political player. Still, it almost goes without saying that he can forget about the White House.
“I don’t remember them, offhand,” University of Maryland political science professor Paul Herrnson jokes when asked what role the Constitution Party could play this election season. “Hold on, let me look them up in one of my books.”
His point, he says with a touch of hyperbole, is that “no one’s ever heard of them or cares about them, and that’s the problem with third-party politics in general.”
Others, such as Bob Moser, senior writer for civil-rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, who covered a Constitution Party gathering last April in Clackamas, Ore., think the party has legs, even if they’re spindly. “They’ve been reasonably successful–they’re still around,” Moser argues, distinguishing them from Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which has disintegrated since it nominated Buchanan for president in 2000. “A lot of the Perot people and Buchanan people have landed in the Constitution Party.”
But Moser says he isn’t impressed with Peroutka. The party, he explains, has in the past tried to draw big-name candidates–Marylander Alan Keyes, for instance, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, or Buchanan–but has always ended up with Howard Phillips at the top of the ticket. And Peroutka, despite his wealth and organizational capabilities, is not a big name either.
“If they nominate somebody like Peroutka, they’re not going to get any votes,” Moser says. “But if they nominate Judge Moore,” whose name has been bandied about for the nomination, and who Peroutka has said he would step aside for, “they’d get some votes. Moore could draw as many votes this time as Nader.”
As it is, Moser says, the party is so far “the only catch basin for disaffected conservatives” in the 2004 presidential elections. How many of those will bother to vote for the Constitution Party candidate is hard to ascertain, but he contends there is a “large element of really conservative Christians who might support the Constitution Party, but who cling to not getting involved in politics, as well as the militia and anti-government people who are not going to participate in the system in any way.”
“I can’t really confirm or deny the extent to which some people may ‘drop out’ due to disillusionment” with the system, Peroutka responds in his e-mail. But he believes that public interest in the Constitution Party’s ideas “is increasing as folks recognize that we have abandoned the worldview of our founders, disregarded the plain meaning of the Constitution, and drastically centralized power in Washington to the detriment of the common good.”
The Constitution Party, “like all organizations that stand for something, will not attract those who stand against that same something,” he continues. While Christian at its core, and thus not likely to attract non-Christian voters, “the Constitution Party welcomes those who support its platform and its mission to restore Constitutional government.”
What’s more, the party’s religious base is not at all unique in politics, Peroutka contends. “The ideology of all parties and organizations and individuals is inherently tied to religion,” he states, because “we act out what we believe.”
If that’s the case–that “we act out what we believe”–then Peroutka’s actions toward Dawn and Holly Hubbard suggest his beliefs may be out of whack with the Constitution Party’s stated platform. How that affects the party faithful’s support for his candidacy remains to be seen.